FBI to Interview Iraqis
- FBI Has War Plans To Mobilize Agents Against Terrorists
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 17, 2003; Page A01
If U.S. forces invade Iraq, the FBI has plans to mobilize as many as
5,000 agents to guard against terrorist attacks, monitor or arrest
suspected militants and interview thousands of Iraqis living in the
United States, according to officials familiar with the effort.
The FBI operation, which would approach the scale of the
investigation into the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, is a
reflection of widespread fears among counterterrorism officials that
the risk of attack will increase dramatically in the event of war.
Although authorities said that most Iraqis living in the United
States are not a threat, they are concerned Muslim extremists will
retaliate for war with suicide bombings and other attacks, the
Many of the FBI's criminal surveillance operations would be
temporarily suspended in order to focus on potential terrorism or
espionage suspects, one top law enforcement official said. Any
immigration violators found during interviews and sweeps would be
detained, several officials said.
The steps are part of a voluminous and detailed contingency plan
developed by the FBI over the last year in preparation for an
invasion of Iraq. Sources said the plan includes a checklist of more
than four dozen steps to be taken by FBI field offices and joint
terrorism task forces before and after war begins.
"We're prepared for the worst and hoping for the best," said a senior
FBI official. "If there is anything else we can do, I'd like somebody
to tell me what it is. . . . There is going to be a very large
commitment to anything and everything that could possibly happen."
Although Bush administration officials do not emphasize it publicly,
U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism experts are in broad agreement
that a war in Iraq will dramatically increase the chances of
terrorist attacks against U.S. targets. As a result, numerous sources
have said the Department of Homeland Security could raise the
nation's color-coded threat level from yellow to orange, or "high
risk," as early as this week.
Attorney General John D. Ashcroft told a House subcommittee earlier
this month that "the FBI is prepared to act to defend America,
including the possibility of a war against Iraq. Thousands of FBI
agents, here and abroad, are working day and night." In a television
interview last week, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge warned
that "we have to prepare for the inevitability" of suicide attacks in
the United States.
At the start of a war, FBI headquarters and all 56 field offices
would immediately staff 24-hour command centers, in conjunction with
66 joint terrorism task forces across the country, authorities said.
The head of one major FBI field office said that "the small
percentage of agents who aren't directly involved will be on
call. . . . This is an all-hands type operation."
Some of the steps outlined in the FBI contingency plan have already
begun, including initial meetings between the heads of FBI field
offices and local Islamic groups across the country, officials said.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III also met late last month with
leaders of Arab American, Muslim and Sikh groups to ask for their
support in identifying terrorists and to assure them of FBI
protection against hate crimes.
Working from an initial list of about 50,000 Iraqi nationals living
in the United States, the FBI has winnowed that number down to about
11,000 who would be targeted for interviews in the event of a war, a
senior FBI official said.
Officials hope to complete those interviews within a few weeks of an
invasion, the official said. The FBI would be aided by immigration
investigators at Homeland Security, who would detain anyone found to
be in violation of immigration laws, officials said.
Other interviews have taken place, focused primarily on Iraqis who
were considered potential security threats or who were thought to
have information that would be helpful to U.S. military efforts,
officials said. Several of those interviews have resulted
in "information of value," a law enforcement official said, while
others have led to deportations or expulsions.
FBI and immigration officials are also still working to locate as
many as several thousand Iraqis who entered the United States on
valid visas that have since expired.
Senior FBI officials said the interviews and investigations have not
changed their general view that most Iraqis in the United States are
hostile to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and are unlikely candidates
U.S. officials are more concerned that Muslim extremists affiliated
with al Qaeda or other terrorist groups might wish to use an Iraqi
conflict as the reason for an attack. The FBI also warned law
enforcement agencies earlier this month about the threat posed
by "lone extremists" who are not connected to al Qaeda or other
terror groups but who share their radical beliefs.
"There is a lot of animosity out there toward the United States," a
senior law enforcement official said. "These groups and individuals
want to attack us anyway, and this could give them the perfect
U.S. intelligence officials also worry that Hussein's regime might
secure cooperation from an unwilling Iraqi citizen living in the
United States by holding family members hostage back home.
During the Persian Gulf War, Iraqi agents in Thailand, Indonesia and
the Philippines failed in amateurish attempts to bomb U.S.
facilities, leading to the widespread view within Western
intelligence circles that Hussein's regime is not adept at overseas
Yet U.S. officials say they are alarmed by a case last month in the
Philippines, where a high-ranking Iraqi diplomat was expelled after
allegedly having contact with members of the Abu Sayyaf terror group.
The Iraqi government dismissed the allegations as U.S. propaganda.
"Iraqi intelligence did try some pretty pathetic operations last
time," a senior U.S. counterterrorism official said. "Do I think
they'll try it again? Probably, but this time they may have help.
That's one of our major concerns."
Bruce Hoffman, a Rand Corp. terrorism expert, said, "It's only
prudent to think about a spectrum of adversaries" during a new
"Twelve years ago, we were mostly thinking of a terrorist threat in
terms of an overseas or foreign threat, and mainly by Iraqi agents,"
Hoffman said. "The world has changed a great deal since then, and
there are more threats than ever to worry about."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company